This Leader in Science Found Her Calling at Colby

Alumni6 MIN READ

Sarah Martinez Roth ’11 continues to win honors as she works toward her goal of achieving health equity for all

Sarah Martinez Roth ’11 (right) works with fellow Colby graduate Kelly Sullivan '10 at Vertex Pharmaceuticals in Boston.
By Bob KeyesPhotography by Brian Fitzgerald
October 27, 2022

Sarah Martinez Roth ’11 is a scientific leader of her generation, an advocate for women in science, and a passionate proponent of health equity for disenfranchised communities.

None of that would have happened had she not ended up in an intro to cell biology course during her first year at Colby. By the end of the semester, she had impressed Professor of Biology Russell Johnson so much that he offered her a summer research position.

“And that was the hook,” said Martinez Roth, who graduated from an arts-focused high school in Manhattan and grew up dreaming of dancing professionally. “Having early access to research at age 19 changed my life.” She completed her biology honors thesis in his lab and also became a mentor and role model to incoming students within the lab.

She graduated from Colby with a degree in biology and earned a master’s in physiology and biophysics at Georgetown University and a Ph.D. in tumor biology at the Georgetown Lombardi Cancer Center.

She now works as a senior scientist at Vertex Pharmaceuticals, a Boston-based biotech company the Boston Globe recently described as “the brightest star” in the city’s biotech community. Her job involves determining how the drugs that Vertex produces perform during research and clinical trials.

Specifically, she is working to develop novel biomarkers for treatments for sickle cell disease, a blood disorder that disproportionately affects African Americans and people of color.

Sarah Martinez Roth ’11 at Vertex Pharmaceuticals in Boston. The opportunity to conduct research at Colby “changed my life,” she said.

“I am very proud of the work I do now to make sure that research includes all patients,” she said, “and I am proud to work for a company that focuses on a rare disease that inordinately impacts the Black community.”

Sarah Martinez Roth ’11

Martinez Roth has received many honors and recognitions, including most recently the Ainslie Alumni Achievement Award from the Posse Foundation, which comes with an unrestricted $10,000 prize. Posse cited her “groundbreaking work for a treatment that would revolutionize the health of the Black community.”

The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard named her one of the Top 100 Biotech Leaders of Tomorrow, and the Georgetown Breast Cancer Advocates honored her with its Clarity in Science Award. During the third year of her Ph.D. she was awarded a National Research Service Award from the National Institutes of Health to fund her research studying circulating DNA as biomarkers for adverse events in patients being treated with immunotherapy. The National Cancer Institute conferred its Ruth L. Kirschstein Diversity National Research Service Award to support diversity in health-related research fields to her.

She found her niche in the lab

It all began at Colby in Johnson’s classroom in Introductory Biology in the fall of 2007. Martinez Roth needed time to adjust to the academic rigors of college. Johnson noted her hard work over the semester and her commitment to mastering the material, as well as her ambitions. She frequently stopped at his office to ask questions.

Impressed, Johnson invited her to join his research lab focused on plant molecular biology the summer before her sophomore year. Her hard work in the classroom translated into diligence in the lab, where Martinez Roth found her niche.

“You could always rely on the results of her experiments,” said Johnson, Colby’s associate provost for faculty affairs. “She was very skilled working in the lab. Even biology students who do well learning material in class, that doesn’t always translate into being skilled at doing original work in the lab. Sarah had those skills.”

She designed experiments that effectively addressed the questions at hand, and she executed those experiments in such a manner that the results could be trusted, he said. “That means there are no inconsistencies, so results are repeatable and consistent. If you do it twice, you get the same answer. That was very important. We’re always doing our tests multiple times to make sure we are confident in the answers before publishing the results. Sarah’s results were always reliable.”

Sarah Martinez Roth (right), walks with coworker and fellow Colby graduate Diane Leinen ’11 at Vertex Pharmaceuticals.

Kelly Sullvan ’10 met Martinez Roth in a biology class at Colby and they work together at Vertex, though not in the same department. She admires her colleague’s passion for scientific research that improves people’s lives.

“I also value her commitment to equality and diversity. She promotes these values here at Vertex on a daily basis through her involvement in various outreach activities and by participating in employee resource networks,” Sullivan said, noting specifically her friend’s work to promote Hispanic Heritage Month and her support of women in leadership positions. “As her peer, I am impressed by her drive, commitment, and passion for science. As her friend, I look up to Sarah because of the time and energy she commits to creating a fair and equitable community.”

From dance to biology

Becoming a world-class biologist was at least the third revision of her career plan that she began drafting while growing up in Brooklyn. She thought she might dance professionally, but her plans shifted after she volunteered for an organization that works to build homes in Nicaragua through improvements to healthcare, education, housing, and economic development.

She realized that if she really wanted to help people, “the purest way” to do that was through medicine. She came to Colby with the idea of being a premed student, going to medical school, and becoming a doctor dedicated to improving healthcare for under-served communities.

Because of her natural ability in the lab, she decided to major in biology and minor in chemistry. She also minored in theater and dance and performed on stage throughout her time at Colby. She wrote her senior thesis about plant molecular biology, studying how crop plants adjust their gene expression in response to the stress of drought. 

Sarah Martinez Roth on the job at Vertex. “I am excited about spending my career working on drugs that impact patients’ lives in positive ways,” she said. “I am excited to grow my career at Vertex, to build my team, and do work with patients at the center of my focus—all while working to make sure everyone has a place in science.”

After graduating, she moved to Boston and worked as a research technician and lab manager in the Cancer Center at Massachusetts General Hospital. Then it was on to Washington, D.C., to pursue an advanced post-baccalaureate program at Georgetown University. She stayed for her master’s in physiology and biophysics and moved to New York and worked as research associate at Regeneron Pharmaceuticals in the immunology and inflammation department.

After that, it was back to Georgetown for her Ph.D. 

The idea of improving the lives of people from underserved communities began during her volunteer work in high school. She followed that idea through her college years, at Colby and Georgetown, and is practicing it in her daily work today.

“I am excited about spending my career working on drugs that impact patients’ lives in positive ways,” she said. “I am excited to grow my career at Vertex, to build my team, and do work with patients at the center of my focus—all while working to make sure everyone has a place in science.”